Those of us working in the tech industry may sometimes forget that older people exist since most tech workers are really young, asserts a recent New York Times article (link). Not surprisingly, much of the consumer technology is designed for young people. However, this is likely to shift with the changing demographics. By 2030, around 19% of people in the US will be over 65, exactly the percentage of Americans that owns an iPhone today.
Startup opportunity : serve the elderly
Serving the needs of the elderly using emerging technologies is not merely a social obligation but rather a lucrative niche as some startups and entrepreneurs are realizing. The baby boomer generation – which is made up of 79 million people born between 1945 and 1964 – is the richest generation in history. Baby Boomers have collectively earned $3.7 trillion, more than twice as much as the $1.6 trillion that members of the silent generation did at the same age, according to a new McKinsey Global Institute report (link).
Use of technologies and user interface designed for youngsters may not be suitable for the elderly. This is an attractive niche market since ageing makes some basic activities harder. While the ageing process is different for everyone, humans go through some fundamental changes as they age. Not all of them are what you’d expect. For example, despite declining health, older people tend to be significantly happier and better at appreciating what they have. If you’re designing technology for older people, you may need to focus on a few specific challenges:
- Vision and Hearing
- Motor Control
- Experience with Technology
Ubiquitous access to the internet and WIFI plays an increasingly central role in connecting people of all ages, and providing them with news and information, government services, health resources, and opportunities for social support. Such needs for social connectedness and the need to access information is also key to designing application for older people.
Let us take a brief look at the broad range of startups and entrepreneurs are gearing up to provide health-related technologies and solutions for seniors.
Robots and robotic helpers
Robots and robotic helpers are beginning to appear in the landscape. Much of the work is under research though some ideas are moving to commercial production too.
IBM is working on a robot that takes care of elderly people who live alone. The IBM Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (MERA), will have a series of sensors that will detect things such as falling, unusual audio or scents, sudden changes in the heart rate or blood pressure, and whether the stove burner is on. It will be able to recognize speech and read facial expressions, and will know when it’s time to call for help. The sensors are being designed to mimic experiences that seniors have within their homes.
Running on the IBM Cloud and a Softbank Pepper robot interface, IBM MERA uses IBM Watson technologies and CameraVitals, a technology designed at Rice University that calculates vital signs by recording video of a person’s face. These technologies allow IBM MERA to obtain fast readings on a patient’s heart and breathing multiple times throughout the day. Combined with IBM Watson speech APIs, the camera can also view if a fall has occurred and alert caregivers.
Robotic technology for the home is still at a nascent stage compared to what we see in sci-fi tales – humanoid robots carrying out our domestic chores are still way out. Still, there are already many domestic robots that are on their way to becoming a commonplace feature of our times.
- bObsweep is a robotic vacuum cleaner manufactured by a Canadian company of the same name.
- Roomba is a series of autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners sold by iRobot.
- Neato XV is a robotic vacuum cleaner of Neato Robotics,a robotics company located in Newark, California.
- Apple’s Siri – Developed by Apple, Inc., Siri is an intelligent digital assistant who allows users to send text messages, make schedules, make calls, play music and videos, etc. It is a voice activated intelligent digital assistant which was first incorporated in the iPhone through iOS 5 released in 2011, following which it was gradually made available on a few different platforms.
- Google Assistant – Google’s intelligent assistant, Google Now is incorporated in all Android devices. Launched for the first time in 2012, Google Now is used to schedule appointments, send text messages, search for directions, etc. With the latest versions of Android, a new feature called Google now on Tap is also available for the latest Android handsets.
- Microsoft’s Cortana – This is a primary intelligent digital assistant which was developed by Microsoft and launched along with the release of Windows Phone 8.1 in the year 2014. Apart from a good sense of humor and ability to tell jokes, Cortana can be used to set reminders, find files on the phone, track package deliveries, etc.
- Amazon’s Alexa – Developed by Amazon, this is a voice enabled digital speaker which responds to the name Alexa. The device allows user to interact using voice, play music, set alarms, create to-do lists, stream podcasts, provide weather information, and even order items from the Amazon website. It can also be used to control other smart devices with the help of the automation hub.
Home health technologies
Clifford Cancelosi, senior vice-president of technology for A Place for Mom, a Seattle-based company which helps families find senior care, notes the increase in health tracking tools, reminder apps and online databases. “These tools can be used by seniors themselves or by their caregivers,” he states. (link)
Wireless home monitoring can now detect emergencies, report unusual behaviours and even track vital signs from the comfort of home, while GPS technology and personal emergency response systems (PERS) can call for assistance at the push of a button.
- Netgear Arlo Pro – The Netgear Arlo Pro is a completely wireless surveillance camera system designed for outdoor use. It’s a snap to install, delivers excellent video, works with other smart home devices, and offers free cloud storage.
- Icontrol Networks Piper – The Icontrol Networks Piper nv is a unique security camera that doubles as a home automation hub. This time around it offers night vision, a more robust camera sensor, and a faster processor.
- Canary All-In-One Home Security Device – The Canary All-In-One Home Security Device keeps tabs on your dwelling with 1080p video capture and sensors for air quality, humidity, and temperature.
Filinski points out that older adults who embrace technology by using it extensively to communicate and do research can then move forward themselves. “Many are using the technology to communicate directly with their health-care providers for daily assessment and advice, and generally seem to have a healthier lifestyle. It is not the technology itself, but using it to be part of their health care or community.” (link)
Small Tech Goes Big
It seems that we are obsessed with reducing the size of new devices to make them more and more portable. However according to researchers, most elderly people prefer to spend their time without rushing and stressing and going from one place to the other, as many young people do. Many spend a great deal of time in their homes, which is often referred to as “ageing in place”.
Gadgets designed to support home living can be very useful, especially when they are designed appropriately for the elderly. Some simple examples include TV remote controllers, lightweight mobile phones and tablets, and featuring large illuminated buttons. TV audio amplifiers can also be very useful for, as well as audiobooks downloaded as MP3s or played on tablets and similar devices directly from a browser or a playlist. A few innovative solutions in the space include:
BeClose is an innovative aging in place technology that helps seniors, families and caregivers stay in touch. Using discreet wireless sensors placed in the home, BeClose tracks an elderly loved one’s daily routine. Caregivers are able to check on them at any time using a private, secure web page. If there are any disruptions, remote caregivers are be alerted by phone, e-mail or text message.
The TabSafe medication management system has reminders and reminds, dispenses, alerts and posts information on compliance, inventory and other health information that is accessible from any Internet capable device. The base unit (for one user) is installed in a convenient location in the home. It is modularly expandable in units of four to accommodate individual needs (a single unit of four can dispense up to 13 medications). The medication is inserted by the pharmacy, homeowner or caregiver into a cartridge (the design allows for one type of medication per cartridge or multiple medications using an optional multidose cartridge).
Telylabs’ telyHD delivers high-definition (HD) Skype video calls directly to an HDMI-compatible TV. By plugging telyHD into the HMDI port on a TV, the user can make HD video calls to any Skype user, on any device, anywhere in the world. The all-in-one unit does not require a computer, nor is there any software to install.
TV Ears helps people with hearing loss hear the television clearly without turning up the volume. With TV Ears technology, users can set their own headset volume and tone while others around them set the television volume to their preferred level.
Home security and Alarms
The improvements in home alarms and mobile phone security apps for seniors have been noticeable. There are sophisticated gadgets now available which can track activity patterns and create alerts for careers and family or friends when there is an unexpected interrupt in an elderly person’s routine. There are also a good range of wireless alarm systems which can be placed around the home with ease.
- Self-Learning Stove Alarms – The dangers of falling asleep when or forgetting that the stove is left on are hard to understate. That’s why a number of stove alarms such as the highly recommended offering from Innohome have come to market. These act as more than simply a smoke or heat detector.
- Motion Activated Reminders – Memo Minder senses when your relative is walking out of the house (or into a certain room). It then automatically plays a personal message recorded by your relative or a family member, which can run for up upto 20 seconds.
- Audio, Video Monitoring – Canary is a smart, complete security system that’s controlled remotely, and adapts to your home over time. You can read our full review here. Once installed, you’re can receive a real-time audio and video stream of your home, with an optional motion-activated recording option. This means that when no one is in the house, Canary knows to monitor for unusual activity.
As people age, they begin looking back on the memories of days gone by and reflect on a life well lived. Technologies to aid digitally saving experiences can also stimulate memory functions and provide an overall boost to happiness and well being. There is a range of interesting possibilities such as large digital photo frames which display thousands of photos, as well as audio and video content in some cases. Some of these digital photo frames can be updated remotely from a relative’s computer or even mobile phone.
A widening range of gadgets are now becoming more user friendly, interesting and empowering for the elderly, as well as a diversifying range of gadgets custom-made for this market group. After all, this is a segment of the population who should be respected and should never be neglected. They brought us into this world, and we will all arrive into this demographic in the end.
- Alarm clock – Use an alarm clock, a watch with an alarm, or a kitchen timer to remind you when you need to leave the house for an appointment, or when you have to check something cooking in the oven.
- Mobile phone – One can program reminders into most mobile phones. This means an alarm goes off at a certain time with a message reminding you about something you need to do. This could be a one-off event like meeting a friend for lunch, or something recurring like your favorite TV program. (Some TVs or service providers, such as Freeview or Sky, also have reminder features so you can set a reminder to watch or record a program).
- Apps for Smart Phones – One can download apps from the internet (via a ‘store’ such as the App Store or Google Play) and use them for specific tasks. For example, you could use a medication reminder app to prompt you to take your pills, and which medicine to take. Some apps are free, while others are available for a small fee.
- Locator and GPS devices – One can use these to help you find frequently mislaid items such as keys or a wallet. You attach a small electronic tag to the item. If you mislay it, you click a button on the locator device to make the tag beep. You will need to keep the locator device somewhere obvious (see ‘One place for everything’ on page 16). Your friends and family may also find these useful.
Startups doing research on technologies for the elderly
|Breezie provides tablets with simplified operating systems to help the elderly access online services.|
|HomeHero is a marketplace designed to help families find, hire and manage quality in-home care for seniors.|
|Hometeam transforms the in-home care and aging experience by providing elderly clients with caregivers.|
|Knopka Zhizni has developed a mobile medical alert system for the elderly and the disabled.|
Life Circle Health Services
|Life Circle Senior Services provides doctor supported home nursing services to senior citizens and bedridden patients.|
|SmartCare Consultants develops monitors to track the movement and well-being of seniors.|
|Stitch is a meeting site for elderly people to find companionship.|
|Tinybots are small social robots that assist the elderly with dementia.|
Links to other articles:
- BuddyHub: The business keeping older people connected –
- Seniors of the Future Will Be Cared For by Robots at Home
Compiled and Edited by: Mohan K (Research assisted by Sanwar Tagra, who is currently pursuing his Bachelors in Engineering at BML Munjal University. )